Amazon: Community building will drive the industry

VP of Amazon Games Mike Frazzini explains why he's not concerned about developers using Lumberyard engine to make single-player games for free

Last month, Amazon made headlines with the launch of Lumberyard, a AAA game engine free for all to use. The catch (or business model, from Amazon's perspective) is that the engine ties into other Amazon offerings. Developers who don't want to run and maintain their own servers will have to use Amazon Web Services, and Lumberyard is also deeply integrated with the retailer's game-streaming site Twitch.

However, that business model leaves room for free riders, particularly if developers are willing and able to handle their own server needs, or if they're making exclusively offline games. Speaking with recently, Amazon Games vice president Mike Frazzini said he wasn't terribly concerned about that idea.

"Single player games are interesting, but if you look at the top-selling games in the industry, generally speaking there's a fairly stark and dramatic shift toward online multiplayer games."

"Single player games are interesting, but if you look at the top-selling games in the industry, generally speaking there's a fairly stark and dramatic shift toward online multiplayer games," Frazzini said. "So if someone wants to create a single-player game, great. We'll treat them as customers, of course, just as we would anyone. But we ultimately expect that if you give them tools to allow for those single-player experiences to be multiplayer, often times they'll take that option."

He added, "From a business model standpoint, we thought the most important thing is to get the tool in the hands of as many people as possible. And then as they build these community-driven experiences, the upside for Amazon, so to speak, is through Web Services or interesting and novel integrations with Twitch... This notion of community-driven gaming is where we think the biggest impact will continue to be in the industry."

Lumberyard represents a further lowering of the barriers of entry to development. In recent years, Unity and Unreal Engine have both pushed to lower upfront costs to developers, building their business models around royalty schemes or subscription plans. Despite that heated competition in the space, Frazzini said Amazon still sees plenty of opportunity to come out ahead with Lumberyard.

"We've been serving game developers as customers through Amazon Web Services for many years, and when we talked to them, the things they would tell us is they were looking for a high-power, commercial-grade tool to build games that made it significantly easier to connect those games to the cloud," Frazzini said. "You can see a lot of games through history... I don't want to throw anyone under the bus, but there are a lot of games that have been very high prestige, AAA games that launched and immediately had a series of challenges with their online architecture. It's a very difficult thing for game companies to design and build and operate."

Frazzini didn't name names, but one doesn't need a great memory to recall the launches of the always-online Sim City, Diablo III, or even last month's Street Fighter V. While he admits that some of those problems will always be out of Amazon's control (developers could always add features that accidentally break whatever underlying solutions Amazon has in place), Frazzini said the ultimate goal is to make those sort of launch debacles a thing of the past.

"Start with customers. Game developers are customers, players are customers, broadcasters are customers, and so on and so forth."

"We want to make it not only so that games that want to build multiplayer have more successful and elegant launches, but as the spikes in demand come through content drops or a celebrity decides they love a game--whatever it happens to be--that those games are able to scale up and down with player demand," Frazzini said. "We also want to make these tools so [developers] who aren't considering these features--because they are so difficult to design, deploy, and maintain--then start thinking in the context of, 'This is accessible to me. It's something I can contemplate in my game design.'"

The rollout of Lumberyard marks yet another aspect of the games industry that Amazon has moved into. It started as an online retailer of games, but now it creates its own games with Amazon Studios, makes its own hardware with the Fire TV, runs its own digital storefront in the Amazon App Store, operates the equivalent of a subscription service in Amazon Underground, has an industry standard streaming platform in Twitch, and now offers game development tools with Lumberyard. There is practically no aspect of the creation, commercialization, distribution, and enjoyment of video games in which Amazon does not have a presence.

"We're very committed to this industry and have been for a while," Frazzini said. "As we think about the state of the industry and where we think it's going, we really believe in this concept of community-driven games, where games are all about their ability to build and garner vibrant communities of fans.

"In general our investment thesis as a company applies here: Start with customers. Game developers are customers, players are customers, broadcasters are customers, and so on and so forth. And then our thinking is that it's very much day one. We're just getting started with the things we're doing. That's an important aspect and the tone we tried to create with Lumberyard is to make sure customers know we're just getting started and look forward to the future."

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